Life in Alaska: A Crash Course in Log Cabin Construction

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Building a house on an Alaskan trapline becomes an adventure for two sisters. 
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Our dogs deserve a break after getting supplies across melting ice as spring approaches.
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Taking the horses home after their work is done.
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The Twelve-Mile cabin.
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Supply tent, torn by a grizzly.
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Lilja hauling moss for the roof.
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Miki sewing and staying warn inside the completed Twelve-Mile cabin.

Life in Alaska: Maintaining a trapline over hundreds of miles of the
shifting ice and bitter winds of the Alaskan bush is just
part of life for the Collins sisters. In their second
report, Miki and Julie describe how necessity really is the
mother of invention as they take a crash course in log
cabin construction.
(See the photos of Alaska in the image gallery.)

Life in Alaska

Building a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness is easy–at
least compared to getting permission from the government!
My sister Miki and I didn’t need a very big
cabin–just 10 by 12 feet for overnight stops on our
80-mile trapline. The trapline, established 80 years ago by
our neighbor Slim Carlson, had nearly two dozen cabins
scattered over several hundred square miles of Alaskan
wilderness, but Slim grew old and so did his cabins. By the
time we inherited the line in the 1970s, most of the tiny
log structures were unusable.

Our dogs deserve a break after getting supplies across
melting ice as spring approaches. Taking the horses home
after their work is done. Opposite: Julie, Arthur, and Miki
in front of the cabin. Below: Supply tent, torn by a
grizzly. Miki, Lilja, and Dropi logging on the ice bridge.

Two good cabins were built before the federal government
tightened regulations on people who use the land but don’t
own it. So when we opened the old Twelve-Mile, we pitched a
wall tent beside Slims collapsed relic of a cabin. Tent
life in the Alaskan winter is not unpleasant, but caring
for furs is difficult, cutting firewood an endless chore,
and hauling an ungainly canvas tent 30 miles out by dog
team each fall a real problem. So we applied for a permit
to construct a small cabin to replace Slim’s. Five years
later, approval seemed imminent. Meanwhile, we made do with
the tent.

In late winter 1992, the environmental impact statement,
archeological and biological surveys, and public comment
periods were completed. Our speck of a house in that
isolated corner never visited by outsiders (except the
officials) was virtually approved, but … not … quite.

Faced with the dilemma of whether to move freight and
building supplies to the site before spring breakup made
travel impossible, we decided to go ahead. Moving over
4,000 pounds of animal feed and supplies for two months for
the two of us, our 15 sled dogs, and three tough little
Icelandic horses proved time-consuming. By dog team, snow
machine, and packhorse, we moved loads of 250-400 pounds,
taking two or three days per 60-mile round trip. When the
ice on one stream abruptly broke up and departed, we
stockpiled everything there until we hauled a canoe out to
ferry freight across. On the last trip, our loyal huskies
leaped into the frigid black water to swim across before
pulling the sled the last three miles to the cabin site.
The horses, too, clambered down steps in the waist-high
shelf ice clinging to the banks. They waded carefully
across the hip-deep river, then donned their packs again.
We crossed one creek on a tiny ice bridge, but found the
Twelve-Mile creek still frozen as we marched triumphantly
up to the tent camp–only to find the tent in a
shredded ball, gear and groceries scattered far and wide! A
spring grizzly had had his fun here before moving on.

Miki made it back to our mainline cabin for replacement
supplies, but with swamps thawing and river ice rotting,
any further travel would be impossible until after snowmelt
and runoff floods subsided. With the exception of an
aircraft radio for contacting the rare overhead airplane,
we had no way to contact the outside world.

The extreme isolation might make some people feel trapped,
but we had grown up all over this country, and except for
taking extra care to prevent serious accidents, we settled
in quite comfortably.

We had a permit to cut timber, but with the building permit
still stumbling through a maze of bureaucratic thickets we
hoped for the best as we began gathering construction
materials. I used my chain saw to cut white spruce logs,
straight but not too big for two girls and a small horse to
handle. Peeling the logs with a drawknife wouldn’t have
been too difficult despite the still half-frozen bark, but
we left that tool at home to save weight. So we used axes
instead, making the work time consuming. Our palomino pinto
mare, Lilja, dutifully dragged in the larger skinned logs,
fearlessly crossing the sagging ice of the shallow
Twelve-Mile creek as gaping holes melted and expanded above
and below the trail. Dropi, the more timid chestnut
gelding, handled the smaller logs.

We did our best to respect the government guidelines. Slash
had to be scattered, trees cut flush with the ground, camp
kept tidy, and Slim’s historical legacy left undisturbed.
Scattering the branches and bark was no problem, but with
heavy wet snow still covering the ground in early May,
cutting trees flush proved so difficult that I returned
after snowmelt to shave down the stubble of stumps. Slim’s
“legacy” included widely scattered tin cans, a stove pipe,
buckets, and drums; so how could the camp ever look tidy if
we were prohibited from picking it up?

With over 30 logs drying in the lengthening days of May, we
turned to roofing materials. Short logs, peeled and split
with chain saw, wedge, and maul into half-rounds, made
slabs for the roof. (We learned that if the bark peels off
in a spiral, the grain is also twisted, which means using
the saw often to start a new split whenever the crack
spirals off course.) Thick sheets of lush moss, free now of
winter’s snow, parted reluctantly from the forest floor to
be piled into a dogsled that Lilja or Dropi dragged out of
the woods.

With May well advanced now and the creeks swollen with ugly
brown runoff, we began to scan the skies for the airplane
that was to airdrop our precious permit. Our building
materials all gathered and ready, we killed time by riding
along the creek, seeking out scattered greenery and last
year’s dry grass so the horses could stretch their
dwindling supply of pelletal feed. We cut and hauled in
firewood and picked fermented cranberries (last year’s
crop) to mix in our sourdough. We tapped birch trees,
collecting up to six gallons a day of the clear thin fluid
for syrup and for drinking water to replace water supplied
by clear ice that was washed away by the unpotable spring
flood. With my chain saw, I milled lumber from spruce logs,
making enough for the new cabin’s bed and table.

We went on picnics and walked the dogs a few at a time.
Joni and her four grandpups enjoyed playfully chasing
phalaropes as the tiny shorebirds twirled around a little
pond. Old Streak, the most reliable guard dog, dutifully
treed squirrels and a porcupine, which helped stretch the
meat powder and rice we cooked for the dogs. Barki, Peter,
Arthur, and Beau tackled a startled black bear but gave up
the enterprise when I called them off. Toulouse’s favorite
game was to follow Andi and swing off the yearling colt’s
bushy red tail, while a highlight for Wiggles came when he
pushed into the tent to eat our carefully hoarded Oreo
cookies.

On a clear, calm evening in late May our brother Ray flew
overhead, dropping a sack of fresh fruit and meat that
splattered across the sandbar, narrowly missing one of the
horses! Glad to hear on the radio that all was well in the
outside world, we scraped up the hamburger and had another
picnic.

Four days later another plane droned overhead. This time
the streamer shooting out the window bore a more precious
cargo: the cabin permit. Moments later we broke the ground,
and by morning a layer of gravel over the bone-dry loose
substrate provided a suitable foundation.

Truth is, Miki and I had never built a cabin by ourselves,
although we’d helped other people several times. Undaunted,
we fitted the logs with ax and chain saw, aiming for a
paper-thin fit but settling for any gap smaller than a
little finger. I notched the top instead of the bottom of
the logs: a professional’s no-no, but a much faster method.
In this dry location, and with a good roof, moisture was
unlikely to accumulate in the faceup notches, and with our
food dwindling rapidly, time pressed harder than the desire
to do fine work.

With logs only 10-14 inches in diameter and 15 feet long or
less, we suffered only a few kinked muscles and never
re-sorted to ropes, planks, or horses to lift the logs up
the ever-growing walls. Due to a limited number of spikes,
we only nailed diagonal corners. In five days we finished
the walls and suddenly had to face the fact the we had no
idea how to erect the gable ends, which had to balance atop
the walls yet be secure enough to support the two purloins
and the ridge pole. Making things up as we went, we spiked
in the logs, slanting the ends for the roof angle. Then we
popped sweat and cracked bones raising the long, heavy
purloin logs and ridge pole. At roughly 18 feet in length,
the ridge pole would provide a protective overhang in the
rear, and a sizable porch in the front for storing
equipment. I drove the chain saw through the front wall,
making two vertical cuts and shoving out the center: a
door. The next day June 6, I left.

Because of the many open rivers and swamps that made winter
trails impassable in the summer, the process of moving the
crew back home would be far more complicated than moving
out, so we began even before finishing the cabin. Leaving
Miki to start the roof by fitting and nailing half-rounds
to the ridgepole and wall, I headed home on foot with seven
of our huskies. Toulouse, Joni, Cody, Wiggles, Reuben,
Peter, and Barki ranged ahead as I waded rivers and circled
lakes and bogs, taking two tough days to reach home. I
planted our garden and left the dogs with our parents,
heading back out to find that Miki had chinked the walls
and finished nailing on the slabs: a bigger job than we
thought since a miscalculation gave us only half as many
half-rounds as we actually needed!

With very little dog food remaining, Miki set off to bring
five more dogs home: Old Streak, Amber, Bingo, Dusty and
Smokey. During her five-day absence, I threw plastic
sheeting over the slab roof, hammered a moss pole along the
lower edges to keep the sod from sliding off, and packed
many buckets of dirt and gravel to scatter on the Visqueen
before I added a layer of sod and another layer of moss
which resulted in over a foot of excellent
insulation–an improvement over the paper-thin canvas
wall tent!

I made quick work of banging together a table beneath the
tiny front window, and a slab bed against the back wall.
When assembling a door from the planks that had been our
bed in the tent, I cut it slightly shorter than the door
frame to allow room for the log walls to settle. A quilt
hung over the door would help protect us from the winter
cold which could dip to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, the stovepipe
safety: a section of a steel drum with a 5gallon metal
bucket centered in it to secure the stovepipe in the roof.
By the time Miki returned, the cabin was essentially
finished. By using local resources–logs, poles,
gravel, sod, and moss–we limited the materials we had
to haul to spikes, nails, plastic sheeting, stove, and
stovepipe. The stovepipe safety came from discarded items
already in camp. Tools included the chain saw and axes,
shovel, maul, and wedge. A drawknife, peevee, scribe, and
other logging tools would have been helpful, but
all-purpose tools such as the ax made adequate substitutes
in that isolated location. We spent just one night together
under the solid roof–but only after pitching our
mosquito proof pup tent inside!

Our great adventure in cabin building over, we immediately
turned our attention to the great adventure of getting the
horses home without drowning them in the endless meandering
swamps that barred the path. A 130-mile detour did the
trick nicely. By staying on dry riverbanks and sandbars, we
trekked away from home to the high country of the Alaska
Range, before crossing to a river whose banks would lead us
back home. With two horses packing and young Andi foraging
loose, we walked the whole way. The three remaining dogs,
Pepper, Arthur, and Beau, ranged loose, wearing packs.
Bear, wolf, porcupine, and moose crossed our path,
diverting the dogs almost daily, although they rarely left
our side for long. Adventures with boggy creeks and
quicksand paled in comparison to the black storm that
swallowed us up one morning. The cloud of mosquitoes that
normally fogged our path vanished as a fine gray ash sifted
down on our small party. Mt. Spurr, a volcano 200 miles
south, had erupted and the winds swept the ash plume over
us. We marched grimly through the choking dust for three
days, emerging only after a long drizzle cleaned the
ash-laden brush.

Two weeks after leaving our new little cabin, we reached
home to replace our adventures with the long-delayed summer
chores of gardening, fishing, and berry picking.

Five months later, we mushed out the trapline trail,
thrilled to see our fine little cabin hunkered down under
towering spruces. How great not to have the bulky tent! How
wonderful to touch a match to kindling and bask in a
radiating heat moments later as the little shelter warmed.
It might be a simple overnight stop on the weekly trapline
circuit, but coming to the cabin was like coming home.

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